Making the CES Show… Thirty Years Ago

This year’s CES has dredged up some memories. I had assumed that as one becomes old they are supposed to become used to memories of a young vigorous person that shared their body and memories leaving little else except some scars and some old stale socks lying around plus 2 or 3 pictures to prove it was in fact not a series of hallucinations. Turns out you don’t get used to it, you just endure.

30 Years ago was our CES: Commodore had the reputation of showing something new every CES and this was a time when a Home Computer meant a Consumer Computer. I have written before about how we endeavored to make sure other’s failures didn’t become ours and we did in fact make it, just in time, to the ’85 CES with what became our flagship computer, at least for the next 4 days.

To the Very Last Minute

When I say made it just in time I am counting people hand carrying the last ten or so homebrewed and MOS cooked 80 column chips either the night before or that very morning. The C128 computers where waiting lined up and open in the room seen below; cases agape much like a row of baby birds waiting on whatever engorgement MOS had come up with for us as the seconds counted down.

And then finally we stood on the second floor of our booth (yes they built a 2 story structure for us in a couple of hours the night before) surveying the now working computers; C128’s and the never released LCD machine, when the last “issue” before the doors opened arrived; a Marketing person (panting) telling us of “yet another C128 failure” though she couldn’t actually point to any previous computers that had failed. We wouldn’t let her continue with her complaint until she retracted the previous general statement of failure, more on principle than actual meanness.

CES "Prep" room, 30 years ago this week.
The “Prep” room now empty, every CES C128 computer came through here. Note the EPROM burner and disks taped to the wall along with a residual Coors beer can

As with most highly technical in-the-field fixes this one was something to remember. My last act of “the ’85 CES show” became the simple motion of walking up to the “failed” computer station and pressing the key changing the C128 back to 40 column mode, especially important since it only had a 40 column monitor attached to it.

End of Line

Then something happened: We were done. I felt sub-processes actually end that had been consuming both CPU and I/O for months, I was suddenly unencumbered by the next “must fix”. I didn’t have a next task to pop from the stack… the phrase “End of Line” came to mind.

I was 24, in Las Vegas and had just delivered one of the major products for the best computer company in the world to the only show that mattered to us. I started walking towards the door with the uncommonly bright Las Vegas sun streaming through the windows. There were lines of people around the block waiting to enter, but the exit was completely unobstructed.

I buried myself in Las Vegas in a way that only youth, testosterone, and adrenaline can enable.

Making the Rounds

"Leaving Las Vegas", returning home from the '85 CES show.
Thats me with the long hair and the girl (Judy Braddick, a somewhat brilliant Game Programmer). Note the bottle of Tequila and empty beer bottle sitting on the table in the Las Vegas airport. Greg Berlin is on the left standing two feet taller than normal humans. (Hedley Davis of Xbox fame in the foreground). It was a good CES.

I won’t report here much of what all was done over the next days as I understand that for some things the statute of limitations never truly runs out, but inspired by [Mike’s] reporting of visiting the suites of the companies I will relate one small tale here: I had grabbed my best friend and fellow hardware designer who was the father of the 1581 disk drive, also successfully released on this day, and headed out. With the 6’8” [Greg Berlin] (grandson of the designer of the Curtis Wright P-40 Warhawk) in tow we started hitting the floors of the local hotels looking for the suites of the “important” companies that never managed to personally invite us. We had a secret weapon that opened doors as if bribed; not in Greg’s towering presence but in the simple phrase: “we’re from Commodore”.

Doors fully opened that had previously opened only 12-14 inches only to stop on the shoe of the doorman, and 5.25” floppies were stuffed in our pockets like the $20 bills of a VIP trying to impress his date. The suite that comes to mind was that of Electronic Arts (EA). With backslaps and copies of this year’s (and a few of last year’s) C64 game floppies shoved in our pockets we were welcomed like old friends; appointments were made and more than a couple of chugging contests were held. They lost or at least didn’t better us as we were young and full of testosterone.

As we made ready to leave the good folk of EA, after making sure that we would swing by their booth the next day (we did), they asked if there was anything they could get for us. This may sound like a strange or gratuitous question but I had already spied the case of Michelob (a beer from the early days of 1 micron silicon) and was pointing to it before the question was fully uttered. EA grabbed the case with no hesitation as I turned to face the door so he could set the case of teardrop shaped bottles on my shoulder for me.

Back out into Las Vegas we went with Electronic Art’s beer on my shoulder… It was a good CES.

Best of the Dinosaur Den 2014

If you haven’t been watching The Dinosaur Den, shame on you. This joint enterprise between [Fran Blanche] and our very own [Bil Herd] premiered in July and it is, simply put, the duck’s guts. In spite of being introduced to each other just a few months before the first episode, they banter like old friends. When they’re not riffing off each other, they’re giving a show and tell of all kinds of vintage technology. Most importantly, they’re always wearing really cool t-shirts.

Hot on the heels of their excellent holiday special comes this Best of the Dinosaur Den 2014 highlight reel. Some of our favorite bits are from said holiday special, because they spent the whole hour talking about their best-loved toys from holidays past, most of which started them on their paths to greatness. Come for the t-shirts, stay for the Zaxxon tabletop arcade and the toy that probably inspired LittleBits. Check out the best-of after the break, and then cook a Hot Pocket or something and watch them all. You’re pretty much guaranteed to learn something cool and/or useful.

Continue reading “Best of the Dinosaur Den 2014″

30 Years later TED finds his voice: A Commodore Story Part II

[Continued from 30 Years later TED finds his voice: A Commodore Story Part I]

Like parents standing on the porch waiting to see their children off to their first day of school we waited for what comes next in a release to production. Among our children: The C116 ($49 Sinclair killer), the C264 ($79 office computer), and the V364 – The computer with an interactive desktop that could speak (courtesy of [John Fegans] who gave us the lion’s share of what made the C64 software great).

Something happened then, and by something I mean nothing. Nothing happened. We waited to assist in production builds and stood ready to make engineering change notices, and yet nothing happened. It was around this time that [Mr. Jack Tramiel] had left the company, I know why he left but I can’t tell due to a promise I made. Sadly, without [Tramiel’s] vision and direction the new product releases pretty much stopped.

What happens when Marketing tries to design a computer: a TED in a C64 case known as a C16
What happens when Marketing tries to design a computer: a TED in a C64 case known as a C16.

Meanwhile in Marketing, someone came up with the idea to make the C264 more expensive so that they could then sell it for a prohibitively high price in. They changed the name, they told us to add chips, and they added software that (at best) wasn’t of interest to the users at that price. They wanted another C64, after all it had previously been the source of some success. Meanwhile the C116 and the V364 prototypes slowly melded into the random storage of a busy R&D lab. We literally didn’t notice what had happened; we were too busy arguing against abominations such as the C16 — a “creation” brought about by a shoving a TED board into a C64 case (the term inbred came to mind at the time).

Continue reading “30 Years later TED finds his voice: A Commodore Story Part II”

SMT and Thru-Hole Desoldering

My introduction to electronic manufacturing was as a production technician at Pennsylvania Scale Company in Leola PA in the early 1980’s. I learned that to work on what I wanted to work on I had to get my assigned duties done by noon or thereabouts. The most important lesson I had learned as a TV repairman, other than not to chew on the high voltage cable, was to use your eyes first. I would take a box of bad PCB’s that were essentially 6502 based computers that could count and weigh, and first go through inspecting them; usually the contents were reduced 50% right off by doing this. Then it was a race to identify and fix the remaining units and to keep my pace up I had to do my own desoldering.

Desoldering with IR System
Desoldering with IR System

It worked like this; you could set units aside with instructions and the production people would at some point go through changing components etc. for you or you could desolder yourself. I was pretty good at hand de-soldering 28 and 40 pin chips using a venerable Soldapulit manual solder sucker (as they were known). But to really cook I would wait for a moment when the production de-soldering machine was available. There was one simple rule for using the desoldering station: clean it when done! Failure to do so would result in your access to the station being suspended and then you might also incur the “wrath of production” which was not limited to your lunch bag being found frozen solid or your chair soaked in defluxing chemicals.

Continue reading “SMT and Thru-Hole Desoldering”

[Fran] & [Bil]’s Dinosaur Den

DinosaurI suppose I can take credit for introducing the super awesome [Fran Blanche] to Hackaday’s very own crotchety old man and Commodore refugee [Bil Herd]. I therefore take complete responsibility for [Fran] and [Bil]’s Dinosaur Den, the new YouTube series they’re working on.

The highlight of this week’s episode is a very vintage Rubicon mirror galvanometer. This was one of the first ways to accurately measure voltage, and works kind of like a normal panel meter on steroids. In your bone stock panel meter, a small coil moves a needle to display whatever you’re measuring. In a mirror galvanometer, a coil twists a wire that is connected to a mirror. By shining a light on this mirror and having the reflected beam bounce around several other mirrors, the angle of the mirror controlled by the coil is greatly exaggerated, making for a very, very accurate measurement. It’s so sensitive the output of a lemon battery is off the scale, all from a time earlier than the two dinosaurs showing this tech off. Neat stuff.

One last thing. Because [Bil] and [Fran] are far too proud to sink to the level of so many YouTube channels, here’s the requisite, “like comment and subscribe” pitch you won’t hear them say. Oh, [Bil] knows the audio is screwed up in places. Be sure to comment on that.

Continue reading “[Fran] & [Bil]’s Dinosaur Den”

Programmable Logic II – CPL

There is a wide assortment of cheap development (dev) boards for Complex Programmable Logic Devices (CPLD), the smaller cousin of the Field Programmable Logic Array (FPLA)

Using an inexpensive board and the development software that’s free to download from the major programmable companies such as Xilinx and Altera, the only additional thing needed is a programmer module. Cheap ones are available on Ebay but I am hoping that someone takes the time to teach an ARM/Arduino to step in as a programmer.

I have a small collection of dev boards including some Ebay specials and also designs I did a few years ago to choose from. For today I am grabbing a newer board that has not been fully checked out yet; an Altera Max V device. I have stuffed the CPLD, the clock oscillator, some LED’s and part of the onboard power supply along with the JTAG header needed to program the CPLD and that’s about it.

 

Herdware CPLD 5M570ZT
Herdware CPLD 5M570ZT dedicated PCB with SRAM.

 

CPLD Schematic
CPLD Schematic showing an Altera CPLD 5M570T144

Continue reading “Programmable Logic II – CPL”

Programmable Logic I – PLA/PAL

C64-B

Yeah I am still a little pissed that the competition is still around and we aren’t, and by “we” I mean Commodore Business Machines (CBM). It was Commodore that had the most popular home computer ever in the C64 (27 Million) and it was a team of MOS engineers after all, that had the idea to make a “micro” processor out of a 12 square inch PCB.

MOS Technologies logo and address
MOS Technology in King of Prussia/Norristown

Of course they did work at Motorola at the time and “Mot” did not want anything to do with a reduction of the profit margin on the pie-plate size processor. Of course MOS got sued by Motorola but that was an average Tuesday at MOS/CBM. I absolutely credit CBM with buying the MOS Technologies chip foundry, as together we could make our own processors, graphics chips, sound chips, memory controllers, and programmable logic.

With this arsenal at our call we didn’t have to make compromises the way other companies did such as conforming to the bus spec of an industrial standard 6845 or having to add extra logic when a custom extra pin would work. We could also make sprites.

6502 Design Team
6502 Design Team (EE Times 1975, archive.archaeology.org)

The compromise we did have to make when designing was cost, and I mean the kind of cost reduction where finding a way to save a dollar ($1USD) saved millions in the production run. I knocked $.90USD out of a transformer one day and I couldn’t focus the rest of the day due to elation.

Cost reduction is a harsh mistress however as you can’t just do it a little some of the time or only when you want to. The mental exercise of multiplying anything times a million was always there, it made it hard to buy lunch — I’d be blocking the lunch line while figuring the cost of a million tuna sandwiches FOB Tokyo Continue reading “Programmable Logic I – PLA/PAL”